school examinations


school examinations
   Since the nineteenth century, school examinations with syllabuses by outside bodies and question papers, set and marked by examiners unconnected with the candidates or their schools, have served several functions. They have offered parliament some assurance that education funding has been well spent; they have reinforced efforts (first in the civil service, but later more generally) to replace appointment by patronage and nepotism by selection based on merit and qualifications; and they have helped raise standards by bringing into all schools the practice of the best and stimulating staff and pupils to greater efforts. Although criticisms that school examinations are educational strait-jackets appear exaggerated, difficulties have arisen both from frequent, underfunded change and also from a persistent tendency to assume that the prime purpose of examinations is discovering who ‘comes top’ when the emphasis ought to be on assessing candidates’ abilities and attainments with the object of determining the most appropriate form of education for them at the next stage and subsequently giving career advice. Similarly, the records of results achieved by schools published annually by the Department for Education and Employment (DEE) are too frequently taken as ‘school league tables’ for determining which institutions are ‘best’ when it is more helpful to use them diagnostically, so that individual schools can regularly appraise their performance by comparison with others with, for instance, a similar intake of pupils.
   Doubts about school standards have led the DEE to institute a National Curriculum and examinations in such core subjects as English and mathematics, and in a range of options for all state school pupils at three ‘Key Stages’ at the ages of 7, 11 and 14. At Key Stage 4, when aged 16, candidates sit GCSE or various vocational examinations, such as Foundation or Intermediate General National Vocational Qualifications (GNVQs). Advanced Level (A Level) examinations are taken two years later; for university entrance, candidates usually need good A Level passes in three subjects (though some offer one or two Advanced Subsidiary (AS) passes either in lieu of one A Level or in addition). The International Baccalaureate, demanding competence in a range of subjects, is also a qualification for university entrance. Advanced GNVQs correspond to two A Levels. Scotland has a somewhat different range of examinations serving similar purposes.
   See also: GCSEs; schools system
   Further reading
    The National Curriculum and Its Assessment: Final Report (1993), London: HMSO. Review of 16-19 Qualifications: The Issues for Consideration (1995), London: HMSO.
   CHRISTOPHER SMITH

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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